Why Big Beauty Brands Are Courting Social Media Stars

As consumers turn to social media to seek out beauty secrets, the industry is signing faces for their followings, not just their fame

By Ryan Porter

This article was originally published under the title “You 👍 Me! You Really 👍 Me!” in the Spring 2015 issue of Cosmetics magazine. It was recently selected as a finalist in the Best Feature category at the 2015 P&G Beauty Awards.

*Stats/figures throughout the story reflect the original publication date.

 One of the original beauty influencers, L.A.-based vlogger Michelle Phan has more than 8 million YouTube subscribers

One of the original beauty influencers, L.A.-based vlogger Michelle Phan has more than 8 million YouTube subscribers

 

Adelaine Morin is staring dubiously at the Bambi-eyed pop star gracing a mascara ad at her local Target in Brampton, Ont. “You know what I think is so weird?” the dimple-cheeked 17-year-old asks. “When they do mascara advertisements, and then they wear fake eyelashes. That’s destroying the whole point of showing the mascara!”

Morin knows a thing or two about batting an eyelash. C0OK1EMONSTER, the YouTube channel where she spins lessons like “The Beautiful Ariana Grande Drugstore Makeup Tutorial,” “How To Dye Your Hair With Jell-O?!?!” and “50 Beautiful Things You Can Do With Vaseline In Five Minutes” (sample: “if your eyebrows are all wackadoodle...it will kind of act like a brow gel”), has over 715,850 subscribers. Since starting in 2011, she’s racked up 34+ million views.

Morin describes her mix of giddy beauty breakdowns as “random,” “weird” and “girly.” If her interview with Cosmetics were a video, she might superimpose an explosion effect over her head to show how she feels about her following. “I’m just a normal person in high school,” she says. Maybe, but in the boardrooms of the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry, they have another way of describing girls like Morin: influencer.

So-called influencers are people who’ve won the trust of a brand’s target demographic—in Morin’s case, tweens and teens just starting to develop their makeup loyalties. Brands are increasingly courting influencers in the hopes they’ll give “organic recommendations” (a.k.a. good word of mouth). “When someone gives an organic recommendation for a brand, that’s better than an ad,” says Conor Begley, co-founder of Tribe Dynamics, a San Francisco firm that monitors social media in the beauty industry.

According to research from IPG Mediabrands, 37 percent of Canadian millennials describe brand communication as “annoying.” Consequently, influencers are seen as a Trojan horse: an appealing way to get a brand’s message across to this crucial demographic of nearly 8 million Canadians—not to mention the next generation, the “digital natives” born between 2001 and 2012 who will eventually graduate from princess dolls to palettes. Grasping the attention of these millennials and post-millennials is the future of advertising.

As of 2014, 97 percent of the 14.9 billion beauty video views on YouTube were for amateur-made vids like those by Morin, reports YouTube marketing firm Pixability. Extravagantly produced brand ads—say, Dior J’adore’s short film of Charlize Theron climbing silks through the roof of a cathedral ceiling into a futuristic metropolis—are responsible for the remaining three percent.

Last summer, Morin submitted a video to the Fine Artistry of Cosmetic Elites (FACE) Awards, organized by NYX, the 16-year-old Los Angeles beauty brand recently acquired by L’Oréal. She won, landing the title of Beauty Vlogger of the Year. While Morin scored a year’s supply of product and $25,000 USD in cash, some say NYX was the real winner. The company received 2,000 entries for the FACE Awards, generating 140 million online impressions. “How much would you have to pay to have 2,000 videos created about you?” asks Begley. “If you paid $500 a video, that’s a million dollars.”

Others are taking note. In January, L’Oréal Paris announced it would find its next official makeup designer through The Brush Contest, described as the world’s first international makeup competition on YouTube. Hopefuls upload video tutorials, which are then voted on by the public. The winner will snag a one-year L’Oréal makeup contract (valued at 100,000€) and will fly to the Cannes International Film Festival in May to help doll up celebrity ambassadors.

M.A.C sent out its own open call to the digital universe last November with the M.A.Cnificent Me campaign, a search for six faces to rep an upcoming 2015 colour collection. The company received 140-character “mantras” (“Dare to be yourself, dare to show yourself, dare to be you.”—@im_bebba) from 70,000 applicants. According to Tribe’s calculations, last year M.A.C generated the equivalent of $110,576,016 in “free” advertising through its social media campaigns—making it the buzziest beauty brand of 2014.

But while M.A.C balances its viral efforts with traditional celebrity collabs (take the VivaGlam campaign with Miley Cyrus), NYX is unique in its emphasis on partnerships with online influencers. “They invested almost exclusively in getting organic fan bases, and that’s why their [digital] engagement is quite a bit greater [than average],” Begley says.

Emily Weiss, the Voguette-turned-blogger behind the insider-y site Into The Gloss, built this type of engagement into the DNA of her new beauty line, Glossier. Rather than hire a head of marketing, she quietly launched her @glossier Instagram account last September to act as a sort of communal mood board, featuring different fonts, Pantone swatches and ’90s nostalgia, such as a photo of a bare-faced Kate Moss. Weiss claims reader engagement helped shape the brand’s stripped-down, modern-classic identity. In an interview with Wired, she said she would creep @glossier’s followers to see not just what photos they liked, but what their followers liked. The most popular shade from a photo of different pinks, for instance, is now on Glossier’s packaging. In November, Glossier received $8.4 million USD in initial funding from an investment firm, and plans to launch in Canada later this year.

Estée Lauder also trolls its social feeds for market research. “Instagram? Insta-focus group,” Jane Hertzmark Hudis, Lauder’s global brand president, told The Wall Street Journal last June. The company has one of the most engaged audiences on Facebook, according to digital research firm L2, but made an explicit bid for social media supremacy last November when Kendall Jenner, 19, broke the news that she would be the brand’s next face—the youngest in Lauder’s 69-year history.

Just as NYC New York Color called out singer Demi Lovato’s social media fandom (now 75+ million followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) when it signed her as its global brand ambassador last September, Lauder’s announcement stressed Jenner’s socials, particularly her Instagram empire—currently 18+ million followers, more than the population of B.C., Alberta and Quebec combined. Two months after Jenner’s appointment, the Lauder Instagram account had jumped from 258,000 to over 360,000. “The idea was to bring new women to our brand and it’s working!” says Geri Schachner, Lauder’s senior VP of global communications and online editorial director.

But a boom in followers doesn’t guarantee slam-dunk sales. “It’s not an authentic connection if the people you are engaging with aren’t your target audience and aren’t going to act on that engagement,” comments Susan Hart, an independent brand consultant in Toronto and founding director of the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards. “If Estée Lauder really wanted to connect with a teen audience, they would do something with their pricing,” she adds, noting that the core of the brand is still anti-aging products and $55 palettes.

A subtler social media strategy is to focus on micro-celebs whose fan bases reflect the brand’s desired audience. NYC New York Color began targeting Canadian bloggers last August, sending them samples and sharing their best demos via the company’s Facebook page. “When you look at companies like NYX or Too Faced, they really focus on engaging with the small to medium influencer,” says Begley. “When NYX does a new launch, it will send out a lot of product to people who are not household names. But what happens is you have people [who become] like Bethany Mota.”

With 8,156,397 YouTube subscribers at press time (that’s approximately 30,000 shy of Bruno Mars), Mota is the most popular beauty vlogger in history. After its acquisition by L’Oréal last summer, NYX introduced itself to its new parent company with a presentation trumpeting its social media presence. It closed with a video of Mota standing in a Target makeup aisle, her mind blown that the department chain had started carrying NYX.

“L’Oréal goes, How much did you pay her to create that?” recalls Begley, who spoke as part of the presentation. “And they said, Oh, we didn’t pay her. Frankly we didn’t even know she was going to do it. She just did it on her own.” The video, at the time of the presentation, had 1.8 million views. “The reason that Bethany Mota likes NYX so much is they started working with her when she was really, really small,” Begley says.

However, a top beauty vlogger such as Mota—who competed on the most recent Dancing With the Stars, has her own clothing line at Aéropostale, and just released an iTunes single (“Need You Right Now”)—runs the risk of outgrowing the very girl-next-doorsiness her viewers were first drawn to. In fact, in a recent Variety survey measuring the influence of 20 Hollywood celebrities and online personalities based on qualities such as relatability and authenticity, teenagers ranked Mota second last. It calls into question the thinking behind the upcoming Oxygen reality show, Survival of the Clickiest (working title), which plans to shine a glossy Lauren Conrad glow on the lives of some big-name beauty vloggers.

Back at Target, Morin is interrupted by a small, intense girl in glasses. She’s the second fan to recognize Morin within the hour. “I love you,” she says, staring at Morin intently. “I even have you on Snapchat. I’m a very big supporter.” They take a picture together, which the girl later tweets to her 41 followers. Retweeted by Morin, it’s favourited 235 times. Morin then tweets a shot of herself goofing off in the Target makeup aisle with the caption, “Late night @Target runs because you gotta look fab and slay 2015.” It’s favourited 571 times, then is retweeted by NYX, and is favourited an additional 383 times. “Slay,” NYX says.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Cosmetics magazine. For more, download our iPad edition.